Most will have heard some of version of this modern gag: a man joins a dating website and soon believes he has a date with an attractive young woman. Then, he turns up for the date to find it’s actually with a 48-year-old welder named Dave.
Indeed, the process of “catfishing” is now the subject of its own MTV show, but until recently, it wasn’t considered a real issue for esports. That was until the recent Overwatch Contenders League and the news that one team, Second Wind, had added a player called “Ellie” to its roster.
Where the story begins
According to her bio, she was a 17-year-old girl who felt that she was “not good” at Overwatch. That was seemingly enough to convince Second Wind to give her a chance as a player.
“When we originally contacted Ellie, there was nothing that would spark suspicion,” Second Wind said in an original statement.
“They [Ellie] seemed to be very genuine and willing to work with us on calls and within private messages. Due to the fact that we do not have any physical contact with our players, we wanted to verify their identity, but also wanted to respect their privacy as well.”
The news that Second Wind had taken on a female player for the Contenders League was big news, as men dominate the Overwatch League. Then, many within the Overwatch community did not take long in expressing their doubts about the validity of a female player.
Blowback and harassment
Ellie was quickly harassed about her identity and abilities. Second Wind asked Blizzard, the developers of Overwatch, to help verify Ellie’s authenticity and “calm the suspicions” about the new player.
Second Wind also hoped to promote female participation in esports and Overwatch by featuring “Ellie” at public appearances. It soon found Ellie was unwilling to turn up to these events for “personal reasons.” From there, the harassment escalated with people “doxing” Ellie and issuing personal threats to the player.
Eventually, Ellie chose to leave Second Wind. Just a short time later, Blizzard contacted the team to confirm that Ellie was not the person they thought. Second Wind apologized to the community, stating, “due to our desperation to fill a roster, we unfortunately overlooked crucial information that should have been paid more attention to.”
So what happened?
Ellie was believed to be a fake identity, purportedly created by an Overwatch Ladder player called “Punisher.” Some news outlets have reported this was part of a “social experiment” by Punisher although the reasons why he would consider this remain unclear.
Speaking to Dot Esports following the announcement about Ellie’s identity, an Overwatch spokesperson stated:
“After investigating the matter, we found that ‘Ellie’ was a fabricated identity and is a smurf account – created by a veteran player to obfuscate their identity.”
“The owner of Ellie’s account is a player with no current or prior involvement with any Overwatch Contenders or Overwatch League team. Ellie was never formally submitted to the active roster of Second Wind and never played in a Contenders match.”
While the Ellie issue may now be condemned to history for Blizzard and Second Wind, the effects of the incident will continue to have significant repercussions for genuine female esports players in the future.
Ricchiuto hits the nail on the head
Commenting on her post on bleedingcool.com, Madeline Ricchiuto explained the negative impact the Ellie issue will have on women’s participation in esports.
She claims the Ellie situation “has hurt the chances of other esports players and given voice to the groups who decry the thought of professional esports players.”
“All it does is highlight the many ways sexism permeates our society, and how prone to it the researchers of these ‘social experiments’ are. A quick walk through Twitter can tell you exactly how kind esports and gaming circles are to women. You don’t need a fake identity for that. That her identity was fake gives credit to the people who threatened to dox her. It legitimizes doxing, and it increases the amount of harassment women in the gaming sphere will face.”
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This is an absolutely fundamental point. It once again highlights the seemingly ingrained misogyny that exists within the esports community. There remains a huge disparity between the number of male esports professionals compared to female, for one thing. And as has been reported previously, the treatment many female esports gamers receive from male players and viewers is nothing short of abuse.
A few more trenchant bits of commentary
As esports publicist and journalist Taylor Cocke tweeted:
“It literally doesn’t matter if Ellie was ‘actually a woman.’ The fact that girls/women have been telling you for years – FOR DECADES – they don’t feel safe in gaming spaces should be enough for you to want to work and improve them.”
Overwatch journalist Liz Richardson tweeted:
“I am seven goddamn thousand levels of livid about this Ellie situation. People involved aside, this ‘stunt’ will have lasting ramifications for ANY woman/nb person trying to get into Contenders. They will ALL now be subject to “lol, are you real??” harassment.”
Smurfing is certainly nothing new in esports. The top games take every precaution possible to stop players from doing this. However, this new form of smurfing is sinister for precisely the reasons outlined above.
That said, it is hard to criticize Second Wind for intentionally seeking to employ a female esports professional on their roster. That’s the kind of action the industry needs. However, it is clear that the safeguards in place to stop smurfing failed, which is something the team and Blizzard need to look at closely.
Ultimately, the Ellie situation highlighted the fact that the esports community still has real issues with female players. And trying to resolve this misogyny remains one of the biggest obstacles within the esports industry heading into 2019 and beyond.
The fact that Ellie was subject to harassment, personal threats, and the threat of doxing, simply for being female and being on an Overwatch Contender team suggests that worryingly, for the next top female players, life is not going to be any easier.